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Separation Anxiety: A Normal Occurrence for Small Children

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

The school season has begun in many parts of the nation and this arouses separation anxiety for many young children who are entering anything from pre kindergarten to first and second grades. In some cases even older children continue to experience separation anxiety.

Because separation anxiety in small children often arouses great anxiety in the parents, as well, it is important to understand a number of things about this issue.

1. Separation anxiety is a normal and necessary part of development that indicates that things are well with the child rather than not well. During the first year of life something called object constancy is established in the mind of the child. What object constancy refers to is the fact that the baby remembers that mommy or daddy continue to exist even after one or both leave the room. This means that a real attachment between parent and child is now established which manifests itself in the baby’s fear that once mommy has left the room she might not return.

2. In fact, separation anxiety in the child about to leave for pre kindergarten or first or second grade means the same thing: the fear that mommy will not be there when they return home from school.

3. If older children continue to experience fear about leaving home or being away from parents it may signify a deeper underlying anxiety disorder. However, under normal development circumstances, separation anxiety ends by about second to third grade.

4. It is not clear why some children do not experience this anxiety upon beginning school while others do. Parents are urged to remember that if their child is one of the many who do experience this difficulty that it is no one’s fault and the child will out grow it.

5. Separation expresses itself in many forms including the child throwing temper tantrums, clinging to the legs of the parent, screaming and crying and other forms of behavior designed to arouse guilt and fear in the parent.

6. It is usually one parent who is singled out as the target for clinging and separation anxiety. This does not mean that one parent is better loved or needed than the other.

7. One of the worst things a parent can do is to surrender to the child’s fears and allow them to remain at home.

What Can Parents Do?

There are a number of useful strategies that a parent can use to reduce the amount of stress the child may experience upon entering pre kindergarten or later:

1. Allow the child to meet the teacher before school begins. This meeting should include a chance for the child to explore the environment of the classroom.

2. Provide an opportunity to go shopping for school supplies and choose the book bag they prefer as well as other items.

3. Send the child to school with a something favorite that reminds them that mom and dad are still there and available to them at the end of the day.

3. Parents must behave in a "matter of fact way" for the child, thereby modeling calm behavior in order to set a good example for the young child.

4. Even in the face of clinging and tears it is important for parents to remain calm, reassuring, confident and resolute about the fact of going to school.

5. Long before school begins it is good for parents to give child the chance to experience small separations, perhaps by visiting Grandma for a few hours.

6. Parents must keep their promises to be home when the child returns from school or to be at the school to pick them up if that was promised. If nannies are used it is important that they are people well known to the children and 100% reliable in being there to receive the children.

7. Regularity and consistency is what builds confidence in the child that things remain normal and stable even during times of separation.

8. By the way, do not sneak away when your child is not looking believing this will avoid anxiety. I am 65 years old and I still remember my mother doing this when she took me to school and promised to remain there. This does not build trust. Fortunately, this happened only one time. I had a good mom even though I had separation anxiety.

Your comments and experiences are welcome.

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